Contextually and Culturally Awesome

October 14, 2013

So on Friday, my friend Laura texted me this picture:



This giant banner of my giant face is apparently up at Denver Seminary right now. It is advertising the contextual and cultural sensitivity of the school. With my face. My black girl face. I have a few thoughts. Here they are.

* First of all, am not angry at the school or those who decided to put this picture up. We sign releases when we start at the school, so they are not doing anything wrong in using my image. I also know that this image was not used with any ill intentions. The phrasing on the banner comes from the seminary’s goal to “serve all people effectively and faithfully, with cultural discernment, and without prejudice or favoritism.” I do believe this is a goal of the seminary, and I was chosen as someone who represents that (perhaps because I am good at having friends who don’t look like me). I have received an apology from the school, and I am confident that it is sincere. They have offered to take the image down if it is embarrassing or hurtful to me, even though they have a right to use the photo with or without my permission. I have been very grateful for the seminary’s response, and I know no one there intended to hurt me, and I do not intend to hurt them. I am not going to force the school to take it down or throw a temper tantrum or start picketing. I appreciated my time at Denver Seminary (except when I was taking comps or writing my thesis or learning Greek or …), and I am very grateful for the caring faculty and staff.

* I felt it was a bit ironic to use my face to advertise cultural sensitivity, when it seemed culturally insensitive to do so without asking my permission or at least letting me know. But, again, I know it wasn’t done to be hurtful.

* Seeing the banner reminded me that the organizations I’ve worked at and the schools I’ve been to have often asked me to be in photo and video shoots. It is never explicitly stated, but I assume that part of this is because I have dark skin (and I’m super photogenic and gorgeous, obvi). It makes me feel self-conscious to be the token black girl — it makes me feel like that is all I am seen as. Also, this does not just happen at the hands of white people. I have been invited to join certain groups because I am black, and I know that certain other black people have talked to me solely because I am black. I once worked somewhere where I was asked (by a black lady) to travel to conferences so that customers would know that there was a black girl working on their product. Umm, no.

* Some people of color may have loved to be on that banner, representing cultural sensitivity. But being known for being black has just never been my thing. I am bi-racial, my mom is white and my dad is black, and that is how I see myself. Culturally, I grew up in Minneapolis, was home schooled, then went to a majority black public high school, and then a majority white private, Catholic university. I worked at camps in very small towns every summer. I moved to Colorado Springs and worked for organizations that have mostly white employees. I am moving to Canada — white. Culturally speaking, I would probably be considered pretty “white,” although even that bugs me. How about instead, I’m just me. I want to be known as someone who loves Jesus and loves other people. I want to be known as a writer, as someone who you can ask about the Old Testament, as someone who is hilarious and awesome and likes BBQ chips. I don’t necessarily want to be known as the black girl.

* I like being bi-racial. I like that my parents didn’t care about the color of each other’s skin, and that their families didn’t throw a fit because they were culturally different from each other. Andrew’s sister and brother-in-law recently adopted a bi-racial girl, and I love that she is now a part of their family. If Andrew and I get married and have kids, they will be one quarter black (like the Psych a cappella group). I like all the mixing. I think it shows that we can look beyond color and culture and however we might normally define people, and get to know people for who they are. And I know that my school would agree with me about that as well.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts. They are solely mine, and I know other people probably have other thoughts and experiences. Tell me what you think in the comments!

(If anyone would like to hire me for a photo shoot in which I eat BBQ chips, I am in!)


13 Responses to “Contextually and Culturally Awesome”

  1. It made me squirm a bit. I think a more appropriate banner would depict a priest and a Rabbi hugging it out.

  2. Jessica said

    First of all, I’m not sure what “contextually sensitive” even means. So there’s that.

    Also, I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this. Inclusivity, in general, has always seemed to me like a pretty good idea. If you want your school/workplace/organization to be available and welcoming to everyone, it makes sense to me to put a variety of faces on your materials. And I always thought that having characters of all races on TV seemed like a valuable effort, because it might do nothing to quell harmful stereotypes, or it might do something, and it seemed worth a shot.

    But if someone’s efforts at inclusivity make someone else feel like their sole identifier is their race, and if that feeling is an icky one, then the whole thing seems a bit misguided. I think inclusivity should include listening to other people about their experiences and being willing to believe them, even at the expense of our agenda, however noble we might think it is.

    All of that being said, I think the whole banner thing would be less pointed if they had used your image on, oh, any other banner besides the “culturally sensitive” one. If they had used it on one that said, “Theologically sound,” or “There is no asbestos here,” or any other marketing or missional goal they might have, it would be much more “culturally sensitive.” As it is, it kind of backfires.

  3. Dominic said

    Your response is gracious. I really don’t know what to do other than just shake my head. It seems their oblivion continues when it comes to certain administrative decisions. I too am thankful for the caring staff there who love Jesus. I just tire of the types of decisions that are made or not made in various situations that reflect this same kind of thoughtlessness or detachment from larger cultural and professional streams. That being said, my sense is that smaller, Christian institutions in general struggle with this issue unfortunately. It’s just unfortunate because these public foibles detract from the things they do well. Anyway, thanks for sharing.

  4. Kelly said

    I really liked this post. I think you did an excellent job of being gracious and it sounds like the seminary’s response was also very kind and earnest as well.

    It addresses an issue that I have recently been contemplating, and that is what does it mean to be white from a cultural stand point. Being a member of the majority culture whose job is to work with people from a minority culture I had to ask myself what does it mean to be culturally sensitive in the first place. I came to the conclusion that my real belief was that white culture was no culture. I bring that up because you mentioned that you don’t want to be known for the color of your skin, you want to be known for you. Well, the color of your skin in some ways shapes your culture and thus is a part of who you are.

    While I am certainly in agreement that this huge banner was misguided, primarily because they didn’t ask you, I think that it is incredibly difficult to be culturally sensitive, and even more difficult to openly say that there are indeed differences between us and still be inclusive and sensitive. Often times any effort to include racially diverse photos on promotional materials elicits a rolling of the eyes. And then if they show promotional materials with only the majority culture on them then they are chastised. For example, it would be equally silly to have a photo of a white person representing culture sensitivity.

    One of the responses that I have get for being a part of a ministry that seeks to minister specifically to one people group, Latino’s, is that I am being a part of creating separation. Therefore I counter it with a photo that I took at our last conference, where we have a three students with three distinct skin colors with their arms wrapped around each other singing praises to God.

    If your school would like to hire me for such said stellar photos feel free to pass them my info ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. denisemorris said

    Hi, guys! Thank you for your thoughts! I think this is a tough issue and can sometimes seem like a catch 22. Some people of color want to be seen as culturally different and to preserve that. Others, like me, don’t really care, and don’t like to be called out for being different.

    I also totally get organizations and schools wanting to represent everyone for marketing purposes. That makes complete sense to me. I don’t hate being asked to be in photo shoots — I’ve done plenty of them. I think what felt a bit different about this was that I didn’t know it was happening. I would have loved this banner if it had to do with my Old Testament program or something like that.

    And, again, I do think it can be a tough issue for people to have to read. Some people are really sensitive about race stuff and others aren’t. Like I said, this is just how I personally feel and I can’t speak for anyone else — black or white!

  6. Anonymous said

    Great post Denise. I’ve always looked at you as being who you are, Denise.

  7. Nicki P said

    Sorry I was the anonymous at 9:11

  8. denisemorris said

    Thanks, Nicki-poo!

  9. Dan B said

    “token black girl”?!? I thought you were Chinese! I’m now starting to regret having laser eye surgery.

  10. […] speaking of being culturally sensitive, we probably weren’t on Friday, when Ashley and I threw a party with every Canadian […]

  11. denisemorris said

    Danny! You need a refund on that surgery. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  12. […] white — especially since I’m an equal mix of both — has never been my thing. Like I’ve mentioned before, I’d rather be known for a million things other than my “race.” (e.g. loving […]

  13. […] white — especially since I’m an equal mix of both — has never been my thing. Like I’ve mentioned before, I’d rather be known for a million things other than my “race.” (e.g. loving […]

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